Coffee heat rising

Making less…less

Is there no end to merchandisers’ ingenuity in dreaming up ways to get us to pay more for less?

We all know that many a 32-ounce container no longer contains 32 ounces, even though we still pay for 32 ounces. But here’s an improvement on that angle: make the stuff inside the container weaker, so you have to use more of it to get the same result.

floatingflowersThe chemicals used to test the acid, chlorine, and alkalinity balance in swimming pool water come in small plastic squeeze bottles. You measure out a certain amount of water and then add a few drops of the dye used to test the concentration of the desired chemical. The two that you check most often are the acid and the chlorine levels. To test the acid level, you add four drops of phenol red to a small vial of pool water; hold it up against a white background and you can easily judge the water’s pH, which ideally should be around 7.6. A test kit, which comes with several testing chemicals and vials, gives you a table that shows you how much acid you need to add, depending on the size of the pool.

Well. Home Depot used to sell phenol red in one-ounce jars. Four drops would stain the test water a deep color, easy to assess.

Last time I went to the Depot to replenish the stuff, suddenly phenol red was available only in 1/2-ounce bottles. Ohhh-kayyyy…. So I bought two, by way of cutting the number of trips to Home Depot. Get it home, drip it into the water, and find the result so pale I can’t even begin to figure out what the pH level might be. It’s almost like looking through plain water.

I already know this is true of the phenol red sold at Leslie’s, which is why I refrain from buying the stuff there. But Leslie’s employees at least have some training in pool maintenance and can answer questions, sometimes even correctly. So next time I’m there I ask if they can sell me some phenol red that works.

Noooo, says the technician. But these great pool dip sticks are better.

Don’t think so, I say. I’ve never been able to get an accurate reading from those things.

Oh but these are soooo much better. Here. Try these.

So I buy the paper dip sticks, which do produce a brighter color but which don’t give you any clue—nay, not ONE CLUE—to how much or how little acid you need to add to balance the pH. Whatever result you get comes about by guess and by God.

Next time I’m in Leslie’s precincts, I complain about this.

Well, says the tech, you know…you don’t have to stop at four drops.

Say what?

Sure! Watch this!

He dumps six or seven drops into the vial. It pinks right up to a readable color.

You can add a fair amount more than the instructions say without interfering with the read-out.

Uh huh. Why didn’t your guy tell me that when I came in and asked about it, instead of selling me these useless test strips?

Because you didn’t ask?

Kewl. You have to know the right question to ask before you can ask it, don’t you.

You see what’s happened here: not only is the manufacturer distributing its chemical in smaller bottles, the better to charge consumers more, but the product itself has been diluted so that you have to use almost twice as much to make it work!

Rip-off artists in action.

Planned obsolescence

You know, one reason U.S. car manufacturers began, lo these many years ago, to lose out to Japanese and German manufacturers was that American cars were designed to crap out in about five years. Back in the day, a vehicle with 50,000 miles on it was a decrepit bucket of bolts that stayed on the road only by dint of miraculous intervention from master mechanics who had died and been transformed into angels in heaven.

You’d think product manufacturers would have heard the message when consumers moved in droves to Toyota and Volkswagen, which were making vehicles that not only ran more efficiently and more safely but also ran for at least 10 years or 100,000 miles without requiring a major landfilloverhaul. But noooo…. Planned obsolescence not only lives, it thrives. The notoriously short lifespan of computers and other electronic products is well known, though apparently consumers are too sheeplike to mount any serious protest. Back in 2006, the Christian Science Monitor suggested that manufacturers of obsolete PCs and iPods, which are full of fine toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and barium, be required by law to foot the bill for collecting their deliberately defunct toys and disassembling them. Too bad our soon-to-be-former leadership has proven to be every bit as irresponsible as the big-monied interests that put it into office.

If you don’t care what this ever-growing mountain of unnecessary garbage is doing to the water you drink and the air you breathe, you might consider what it does to your pocketbook.

bosheThe other day I learned my Bosch dishwasher, which has gone senescent at the age of FOUR YEARS, needs a $400 repair. The repairman assumed I would want to junk it and buy a new one, for a mere one or two hundred bucks more than the fix-it job.

Yeah. Nice timing, eh? Merry Christmas: you get to blow half your savings on another new piece of junk, just as an economic depression is rolling down on you.

Four years and a dishwasher dies? Used to be you could expect one to die in a seven years. But, my chickadees: back in the Paleolithic period, dishwashers, refrigerators and stoves could be expected to last forever.For the lifetime of your house!

Don’t believe me, do you?

Well, it’s true. In 1969 my former husband and I bought a fully renovated old house in the historic district of lovely downtown Phoenix. The KitchenAid dishwasher in the house was about two years old when we moved in. This miraculous machine allowed you to drop in dishes while they were really dirty—you didn’t have to prewash them at the sink before running them through the wash cycle. Back in the stone age, this was quite the innovation.

Despite the new technology that made such a trick possible, that KitchenAid was still running, and running well, when we moved out of the house over fifteen years later.That would have made it seventeen years old and still functional. It required, as I recall, one visit from a repairman in all those years.

The Amana side-by-side refrigerator did die about a year before we left: it ran trouble-free for over sixteen years.

Now we learn that a Bosch, a very expensive item, indeed, can’t manage to stagger along for more than four years?

I turned to Bosch after a negative experience with Maytag, once among the highest-rated household appliances. When I replaced the harvest gold clean-it-yourself wall oven and the el cheapo dishwasher in my last house, I bought Maytag appliances, having been assured by authorities such as Consumer Reports that these were top-of-the-line and would run for the full 15 or 18 years one would expect a big-ticket item to last.

Wrong. Five years later—almost to the day!—the oven’s heating element exploded and started a fire, and two days after that the dishwasher died. Both appliances had to be replaced. Fortunately, the fire in the oven caused so much damage my homeowner’s insurance paid for that. But I had to foot the bill to replace a dishwasher that should have continued to run for another five to ten years. At that time, an appliance repairman told me that kitchen appliances are engineered to give out in about seven years.

I will never own another Maytag product as long as I live. And now I’m thinking I’ll never own another Bosch, either. Four years is just not enough functionality for a $600 to $1,500 appliance! Especially one that ranks at the top of consumer ratings for “reliability”!

If this is “reliable,” do you get all of 18 months out of a less highly rated brand?

It’s one huge ripoff!

There’s simply no excuse for this kind of consumer abuse. We know kitchen appliances, like cars, can be made to last upwards of a decade. So, obviously, can computers: the only reason you’re forced to throw out a perfectly functional piece of equipment is that manufacturers deliberately design their product campaigns so that your computer soon will no longer operate in a rapidly—and unnecessarily—changing environment.
Consumers in America and worldwide need to get their act together and force their governments to bring a stop to this kind of outrageous waste and greedy exploitation. Write to your Congressional representatives and demand passage of bills to force makers of appliances and electronics to pay the real cost for manufacturing products purposefully designed to rip us all off.
landfill2photo by D’Arcy Norman

Dear Sir (You Cur): How to complain in writing

Sometimes you have to complain. Sometimes it works. Matter of fact, I’ve collected some pretty nice loot with effective dear-sir-you-cur letters: refunds, gifts, blandishments to persuade me to return to the fold. So…what DOES work in the consumer complaint department?

In my experience, four strategies tend to work with some reliability:

  1. Extreme clarity. Explain your problem and what you want done about it in clear, concise, economical language. Try to keep your message to one page if at all possible; only under the most extreme circumstances should your letter run longer than two pages.
  2. Good humor or at least moderate courtesy. Try to sound reasonable, if at all possible. Never threaten a lawsuit; instead use this language: “I expect that xxxx will be done.” The potential for a lawsuit is obvious to higher management, which, in the circumstances where that could be a possibility, is where you will address your dear-sir-you-cur. You need not and should not threaten. When you need a lawyer, just quietly go hire one.
  3. Addressing the right person(s). Find out where, within a company, you can find someone who can do something to fix your problem. Try The Consumerist or Google; in either case, search the company’s name + “company headquarters” to find the names of upper-level executives and their addresses. Also look outside the company to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, professional organizations that your correspondent may belong to, and regulatory agencies with some legal sway over the company’s behavior. Do not forget state and federal attorneys general, if a law appears to have been violated. If that’s the case, cc your letter to these outside agencies. A couple of weeks ago I posted a guide with links to places to track such worthies down.
  4. A request that something specific happen to remedy your issue. A random rant will get you nowhere. Your purpose in writing the dear-sir-you-cur is to obtain some sort of redress for whatever wrong you believe has been inflicted on you.

Hmmm…. Let’s see how these principles work in real life. Here’s a letter that netted me a sweet little prize:

December 15, 2005


Calphalon Returns
260 Metty Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48103


Dear Sir or Madame:


Enclosed is a Calphalon teakettle that has corroded all the way through to the outside. I took the kettle back to Williams-Sonoma, where I purchased it, and asked them if they were serious about the “lifetime guarantee” they promised when they sold it to me some years ago. They said they are, but they no longer carry Calphalon, and so they gave me your 800 number. Your customer service representative advised me to send the kettle back to you and said it would be replaced with a kettle in the style you are currently manufacturing.


And so—here it is.


Would it be possible to get a kettle that has an efficient, working whistle? Among the reasons I have so loved your wonderful old kettle is that its whistle actually works-few so-called whistling teakettles really make a loud noise. In my growing senility, I occasionally will put the water on the fire and then wander off and forget it. If I’m working at the computer or in the garden, I’m capable of completely forgetting about the kettle on the stove; in the past, I have melted two enamel teakettles to electric burners doing this. Obviously, this creates a considerable risk that sooner or later I’ll burn down the house. So, will you please send me a functioning, real whistling teakettle? If the little whistle that goes on the old kettle will fit on the new one, would you send back the old whistle?


This has been the best kettle I have ever owned. Besides making a noise audible in the garden and the back office and besides being visually beautiful, it is so perfectly balanced that even when it is full, it hardly feels heavy. I hope your new kettle is as intelligently designed.



Notice that this little guy has several characteristics that mark a successful dear-sir-you-cur:

  1. It’s not especially churlish. You catch more flies with molasses than you do with vinegar.
  2. It makes a specific request: it tells the correspondent exactly what you want to have happen. (Matter of fact, this one makes two requests: a) please send me a replacement teakettle; and b) please make it a whistling teakettle.)
  3. It says something complimentary about the correspondent or the company involved.

Mellow—or at least good humor—usually gets you further than rant. In this simple example, the main points are that I’m asking for something specific and that I’m restraining myself from having a fit because the allegedly indestructible Calphalon teakettle failed to hold up under the corrosive effects of Central Arizona Project water, a substance that many residents will not ingest in its unfiltered state.

By 2005, Calphalon was no longer making its wonderful whistling teakettle. Instead the company sent me a fairly awesome stainless steel model that I could not have afforded to buy unless I’d won the lottery. It worked magnificently and lasted a long time, until…yes…I wandered off and forgot I’d left the heat on under it. Which, as you’ll recall, was the reason I needed a kettle that makes a noise when the water comes to a boil.

Moving on…

The year 2005 was a good one for the dear-sir-you-cur. That summer, I extracted a refund from the California Automobile Association, after they refused to supply the service I’d purchased. This effort required a series of letters:

July 5, 2005


California State Automobile Association
150 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102


Dear Sir or Madam:


On August 15, 2004, I sent the California Automobile Association a check for $49 to cover a year’s membership for my son, Oliver Q. Boxankle, who was living in San Francisco.


Over the Fourth of July weekend, he moved back to Arizona. This afternoon while he was hauling his goods to a storage locker, his car battery went dead. The temperature here today, by the way, was 112 degrees.


He called AAA and was refused help. He ultimately had to get a friend to drive him to a Checker auto, wait while he purchased a battery, drive him back to the vehicle, and help install it.


The reason I paid your organization fifty bucks was so that this sort of little crisis wouldn’t happen. Since AAA declined to honor its contract, I believe you should refund my fee.


Kindly do so promptly. I will refrain from notifying the California attorney general’s office and the Better Business Bureau about this for a week or two, giving you some time to refund the money, but unless I hear from you soon, I will take my complaint to the authorities in your state.



Not only did this appeal elicit no response, what I did get was an ad proposing that I send the California AAA more money for an extended membership. Argh! I sent the solicitation and a copy of my original dear-sir-you-cur back to the person who was billed as the organization’s membership director, with an expression of dismay:

August 6, 2005


Chitra Nayak
Vice President, Membership
California State Automobile Association
Box 429186
San Francisco, CA 94142-9186


Dear Chitra Nayak:


Now that this annoying solicitation arrives, instead of the refund I requested, I do believe I will let the California Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau know what my son received in exchange for the fee I gave you last year.


Steal from me once, shame on you. Steal from me twice, shame on me.


And shame, indeed, Chitra Nayak. I would be embarrassed to work for an organization that steals from its members and then dares to hold its hand out for another ripoff.



Hm. Could be the language was getting a bit strong there. That notwithstanding, I also sent a complaint to the California Attorney General’s consumer division:

August 6, 2005


Attorney General’s Office
California Department of Justice
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550


Dear Sir or Madam:


Less than a year after I purchased a membership in the California Automobile Association for my son, who was living in San Francisco, he moved back to Arizona. The ambient temperature exceeded 112 degrees the day he went to store some of his possessions in a rented space, and, not surprisingly, his battery went dead.


He called AAA using the number on his card. They refused to send help.


In doing so, they violated their contract with me, and so I asked them to refund my money. In response I got nothing but a solicitation to renew the membership!


This outfit clearly is dishonest. You need to find out why they do not honor their contract with their members. If one person has been cheated, probably many more have had similar experiences.


Sincerely ,

Probably I would have let it drop had AAA made no response to my original request. The solicitation that I re-up the membership, though, really did go beyond the pale. Interestingly, the August 6 letters worked: AAA gave me a prorated refund for the time remaining on the year’s membership. It wasn’t much. But it was the principle of the thing.

In the Great Qwest Fiasco, the tide is running in my favor just now, largely thanks to a carefully crafted letter to Qwest’s chairman and CEO, cc’ed to the Arizona Corporation Commission and, for good measure, to the highest-ranking Qwest marketing executive I could identify. Today I got another call from the company’s Denver headquarters, where the woman who seems to have become my personal ombudsperson arranged for another refund—the latest in the amount of $99. Most of the mess is now untangled, the overcharges (as far as I can tell) have been rescinded, and I got free of the cell phone contract with no cancellation fee.

I do have to admit that while I was tilting at this particular windmill, I violated many of the standard dear-sir-you-cur rules:

October 23, 2008


Edward A. Mueller
Chairman and CEO
Qwest Corporation
1801 California Street
Denver, Colorado 80202


Dear Mr. Mueller:


This letter is to ask that I be released from the remainder of my cell phone contract with Qwest, which runs until next June. I believe this request is justified by the abominable way in which I have been treated by your company and by the outrageous monetary gouges that have been inflicted on me as a result of Qwest’s incompetence and through no fault of my own.


Last August my DSL connection failed. I called your company’s DSL support and reached a person in Manila, who barely spoke English. After a comedy of errors ensuing from reading a script, this woman asked me to unplug the phone line from the wall, disconnecting us. I again had to trudge through your company’s monstrously off-putting robotic answering system and sit on hold forever to finally reach another Filipino, whose English was slightly better but far from perfect. He lock-stepped his way through the same script and, when nothing that he was trained to try worked, he concluded the modem was broken. He said he would send a new modem, and I should immediately return the old one lest I be charged something in excess of a hundred bucks for it.


Within a few hours of these exchanges, the DSL came back online. It stayed online. When the new modem, which appeared to be identical to the old modem, arrived here, I called your company and asked what I should do with the new modem and said I did not wish to be charged for it. I also asked to have a mysterious long-distance charge explained. Now I reached a representative who called himself “Josh,” and that was when the real trouble began.


“Josh” remarked that he could save me money on my phone bill by bundling the three services I have: DSL, an Internet connection, and the most minimal cell phone service I could extract from your company. I said the services were already bundled. He said they were not. I said the only reason I signed up for the DSL was that Qwest sent an offer promising a low rate for bundling the three services. He said the bundling had not been done, and that he could cut $10 off my monthly bill by doing so.


In the course of this discussion, he said that at no extra cost he was arranging to upgrade the speed of my DSL connection, but to accomplish this I need a new modem. I must mail back the modem Manila had sent, said “Josh.” A serviceman would come and attach the new modem, which would cost me a hundred dollars. But, o lucky me, Qwest would send me a $50 rebate. Reluctantly, I agreed to this.


Not until I got off the phone did I register that at one point in the conversation “Josh” apparently realized the modem that was sent to me was the same as the modem he proposed to replace it with. This was when he backpedaled to maneuver me into letting him replace it with another one that I have to pay for—no doubt he gets paid by the amount of junk he sells to consumers.


And it was not until the conversation ended that I looked up my records in Quicken and found that I signed up for the alleged “bundle” way back in August 2006, meaning that for the previous two full years I was overcharged $10 a month. This amounts to $240 for a service that was misrepresented to me.


At this point I would like to pause in my narrative to suggest that the $240 rip-off should more than compensate for any additional gouge your company proposes to inflict for canceling your cell phone contract.


A few days later, a Qwest DSL technician showed up. He was mystified at the proposal that he replace the modem. He said I did not need a new modem for the service I was getting, and furthermore the service I had was working fine. He took the modem he had brought in his truck back to Qwest.


Subsequently, Qwest tried to charge me for this modem, which was never installed and which was taken away by the technician. Another miserable trudge through your execrable answering system, on September 23, connected me with “Amy,” who said the amount would be credited to my bill on the next cycle. I pointed out that this meant I would be soaked for $100 that I can’t afford in this cycle-I work for the state of Arizona and do not earn even a measurable fraction of what a phone company executive earns. When she realized the account was set up for automatic payments from my checking account, she said she could cancel this month’s autopay, accept a credit card payment for the $55.47 actually owing, and restart the autopay the following month, at which time, she promised, the cost would return to $86.


“Amy” made the following arrangement, which I read back to her over the phone to confirm:


  • Autopay was stopped for the current billing cycle.
  • It would restart the following month.
  • The next bill would be approximately $86.
  • The $99 charge for the undelivered modem was credited to my Qwest account.
  • I paid $55.47 for the current month’s bill by charging it to my American Express card.
  • The confirmation number for the AMEX transaction was 144875.
  • No late fees would be charged.


A couple of weeks later a threatening letter came from Qwest. Dated October 8, it stated that my bank had bounced a payment for $155.46 and that Qwest would soon disconnect my phone service and trash my credit rating.


This document is problematic (not to say “specious” or “untrue”) in several ways.


  • First, it includes a bill for the modem that I never received, and that Amy supposedly credited to my account TWO WEEKS before the statement’s date.
  • Second, no attempt to debit my checking account was made. Had Qwest tried to debit my account and failed, the credit union would have sent me a notice to that effect.
  • Third, at the time this shenanigan was going on, my checking account held something over $1,600.
  • Fourth, I have three thousand dollars worth of check overdraft protection on that account, so that even if the account were empty (which it most certainly was not), the credit union would have honored the debit anyway.


I again wasted some more of my time to slog through your insulting, infuriating, and frustrating robotic answering system. This time I reached “Brad.” He said the bill was cut on September 16 (why it was dated October 8 was not explained) and I talked with “Amy” on the 23rd. At first he thought maybe Qwest had an incorrect bank routing number, but after some study, he couldn’t see why a bounced transaction notice should have been sent out at all. He said one of the modems wasn’t credited because Qwest employees failed to provide a “return authorization number.” Thus the return didn’t register in the system. He found the $155.46 was deleted on September 23 and then remarked, about what he saw on the system, “This doesn’t make sense.” He said no late fee should have been issued.


“Brad” adjusted the account (or so he said) and concluded the account balance was zero and nothing was owing. I asked if the next regular bill would be $86. He said that was correct: the bill would now be exactly the same as it was before this time-wasting exercise began. The confirmation number for that transaction was 2850757.


Yesterday, I received a bill from Qwest informing me that your company is about to arrogate $169.03 from my checking account. The bill is utterly incomprehensible (as it is evidently intended to be), but when compared with the August bill it reveals that the charge for the phone has been jacked up from $26.72 to $43.18! The charge for the Internet service increased from $29.99 to an incredible $89.98!

Once again, I called and trudged through the hateful answering system, reaching one “Alex.” I explained that since “Brad” had told me Qwest’s recorded announcement that telephone conversations were recorded was not entirely true and only a small number of transactions are recorded, I was making my own recording of the conversation. After I rehearsed the fiasco again, he said he would get someone in the “Loyalty Department” (you have got to be kidding!) who apparently had more authority to deal with the mess than he did. He put me on hold for a while. When he came back on the line, he said he couldn’t get past the hold button for “Loyalty” but on reading my bill he saw that a $108.29 credit was issued on October 16, and I should have been billed for $69.03. He said I will be credited for that amount next month.


Once again, I explained that I cannot afford a $170 gouge this month. He then said he would have to go to the collections department to get the amount removed from this month’s bill. Belatedly, he now noticed that the $108.29 credit actually was applied to the bill.


I pointed out that the bill is incomprehensible and that it’s impossible to tell whether that was true or not. I also stated that I wanted the automatic payment canceled NOW, and that I would pay whatever is actually owed by check. He said he would call collections, stay on the line, and arrange for the credit to go through this month.


I then pointed out the bizarre increases in the costs of the phone and the Internet services. In response, he said he needed to talk to “Escalations” and put me back on hold.


Forty-five minutes into the call, I was still listening to Qwest’s annoying “Get in the Loop” advertisement, infinitely looping.


Now someone named “Amber” got on the line. She demanded that I turn off the tape recorder and said no action would be taken as long as the call was being recorded.


Interesting, isn’t it, that it’s OK for Qwest to record its customers but not OK for the customers to record Qwest? Says something about Qwest’s attitude toward the people it “serves.”


After some double-talk, she claimed the amounts looked different because of the different layout and composition of the bills, but they actually were the same. She refused to brook any skepticism about this. Then she said $30 was added for a “renewal fee” for long distance-that somehow I got enrolled in some sort of “membership plan.” I said I never enrolled in any such arrangement and no one had ever told me that I had. She claimed I was billed that much last year. I pointed out that $30 does not account for a difference between $85.99 and $177.33. She said I was billed for 2 ½ months’ worth of Internet service because the upgrade in September was not billed at that time. I said I was told there would be no change in the amount due. She said that was “misinformation” (apparently Qwest jargon meaning “a lie”). She said she would return the service to 256K and backdate it, reducing that fee.


Later, after I got off the phone from “Amber,” I looked up last year’s Qwest bills in my Quicken records and found that I was never billed an extra $30 for anything. Evidently “Amber” was “misinforming” me again.


That made it pretty clear why she didn’t want to be recorded.


In response to Amber’s very practiced brush-off, I informed her that I found Qwest’s service so unacceptable that I intend to change providers. I asked how much longer was left on the cell phone’s contract, which I was corralled into by a fast-talking service representative about 18 months ago, and how much the cost of the cell phone alone would be. She said the cell would cost $25 a month and the contract runs out in June 2009. She downgraded the Internet connection to 256K (with, I might add, zero effect on the speed of operation) and said the cost for that would be $24.99 as of October 28. The order number for this activity is C245880.


I asked her if Qwest would try to soak me for any other charges when I change services. She said no exit fees would be levied. Given the several instances of “misinformation” to which I have been subjected, to say nothing of the brush-offs and the manipulation, I will believe that when I see it.


This kind of treatment of a customer who has paid her bills regularly and on time for decades is inexcusable.


I am dropping Qwest immediately and signing up with another provider. I would like to be quit of all relations with your corporation. That means I want the cell phone canceled, too. Considering the way your employees have treated me, the amounts Qwest has overcharged me, and the incalculable amount of my time Qwest has wasted, I believe your company should release me from this contract and cancel the cell phone service with no further charges.


If you had any decency at all, you would also refund the amounts I apparently have been overcharged. But I certainly don’t expect that, after experiencing your company’s “Spirit of Service.” All I want is to get quit of Qwest as fast as possible with no further gouges, threats, or hassles.


Sincerely, (etc.)


cc: Arizona Corporation Commission

Rule violation after outrageous rule violation occurs in this tome of an epistle:

  • The thing is FIVE single-spaced pages long! A signal violation of the two-page max.
  • The language is truly over the top, with terms like “gouge,” “threats,” “insulting, infuriating, and frustrating,” “specious,” “double-talk,” and “lie” elevating the tone from angry into the incandescent heights of blue-hot rage.
  • It makes only one explicit request—cancellation of the cell phone contract, which had another eight months to run—when several requests are implicit in the narrative (refund of overcharges, cessation of harassment, immediate cancellation of all Qwest services).

Why did I commit these violations, and why did the volley seem to work anyway?

First, a one- or two-page statement would not have described the interminable series of runarounds to which I was subjected. I wanted to communicate, in form as well as content, just how much of my time was wasted. Second, I truly was outraged at the run-arounds, rip-offs, and exorbitant gouges, and I think I was righteously outraged. The steadily escalating tone that moves from frustration to annoyance to anger to fury was deliberately crafted to make a point. Third, in general senior executives at large corporations get where they are because they are intelligent and because, believe it or not, they tend to like people. They often are gregarious souls who want to please. Banking on this generalization, I guessed that Mr. Mueller would respond to the emotion as well as the facts presented here in detail.

And why did it work? Probably because I sent a copy to the Arizona Corporation Commission. The agency’s website specifically states that it regulates matters having to do with billing, equipment installation, and customer service. Having noticed that, I addressed each of these issues in my letter to Qwest’s executives, and I pointed out, in a much shorter cover letter to the corporation commission, that my complaint addressed all the issues.

So, in the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do department, here are some overall guidelines for mounting a successful consumer complaint:

  1. Express your complaint, in writing, as clearly and succinctly as you can.
  2. Try to keep it short.
  3. State explicitly what you would like the company to do for you.
  4. Address your complaint to a human being who is in a position to get things done.
  5. Identify trade groups and regulatory or law enforcement agencies that might support your case. Be prepared to file complaints with them if you do not get satisfaction after a reasonable length of time.

And remember:
The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Woot! Apple shines!

Hot diggety! In spite of the snit over the MobileMe misadventures, I have to say that Apple’s “Geniuses” outdo just about everycorporatebody in the customer service department.

Think of it: Got a problem? See an actual human being! Not only that, but the human being knows what he’s doing!!!!! What an extraordinary idea. Qworst should hire Steven Jobs as a consultant to advise on how to handle customers.

Today’s Genius, Zachary, instantly recognized the issue with the port connection to the Cox modem. He also knew how the Mac “forgot” my password (noooo, i did not change it and in a senior moment forget it myself), and he was able to make some recommendations about routers to get the Dell laptop connected.

Mac hardware is pricey, no question about it, but for the premium, you get what you pay for: gear that works and techs who will speak to you and actually can help you.

Qwest update

Yesterday while I was at work Julie called from Qwest’s corporate headquarters in Denver. She left a phone number that, believe it or not, dialed straight through to her, unfiltered by any gate-keeping robots.

Butter would not have melted in Julie’s mouth. She was soothing, she was apologetic, she was smooth.

Julie revealed that when the Josh claimed he could save me $10 on a “bundle,” he really was claiming to “save” that amount on a much larger set of services than I had or wanted. In other words, his scam scheme would save me $10, all right: off a much larger bill! I said he had led me to understand he was going to reduce my existing bill, and that I never asked for nor needed any of the extra bells and whistles. It was thanks to the Josh’s deceptiveness that I ended up with a doubled bill.

She said she would deactivate all the extra services he had put on the system and cancel the long-distance “membership plan,” which costs an astonishing $30 annual “membership fee” (give me a BREAK!) and $20 a month for the privilege of being billed 2.9 cents per minute of long-distance talk. If you’d prefer not to pony up the monthly premium, for just the thirty-dollar annual rip, you can talk for 5 cents a minute: exactly the rate Cox charges with no extra fee.

She also agreed to cancel the cell phone contract, effective immediately.
*****Ta DAAAA!*****

Since I’d already canceled Qwest’s phone disservice and am about to cancel its DSL disservice, all I really wanted from this transaction was to get quit of the extra $30/month ding for the cell phone that I hardly ever use.

She said the various credits for all this canceled service would appear on the December bill. The $170 inflicted by the Josh’s “bargain” still is to be extracted from my checking account the first part of November, but the final bill will show a bunch of credits. She asked that I not cancel the automatic bill payment until the final bill comest through in December. Reluctantly (as usual), I agreed to this.

So, since I can’t afford a $170 phone bill, now I will have to transfer money from savings to cover it—timed perfectly as I’m looking at a possible layoff. Thank you SO much, dear Qworst. It also means, of course, that I’ll be buying less than planned in the way of Christmas presents next month. Merry Christmas, dear Qworst!

It also means I won’t be fully disconnected from Qworst until the first week in December, at the soonest. Meanwhile, she said the Cox service will start on October 30 but the paperwork will not go through until November 3. She also said that, contrary to what Cox’s “Rose” told me, Cox has to request the DSL disconnection, not me. Qwest cannot cancel it at my request. I said Cox had told me that after the serviceman came by and installed the new Internet connection, I had to call Qwest and tell them to end the DSL service. She said Cox is supposed to do that.

So it looks like that will be another bone of contention. {sigh} When will this be over?
Previous chapters:

Back Again—Temporarily?
“We Value Your Business”
Unbundled! Qwest Strikes Again
What Happens When a Live Qwest Guy Shows Up
Qwest Redux: How Do These Companies Stay in Business?
Qwest: The Saga That Will Not End

Consumer Headaches: 15 ways to get help

My two-month-long fight with Qwest, which barring a stroke of luck will no doubt go on a lot longer, would have been lost early on if I were not adept at writing the dear-sir-you-cur letter (more about which in a later post) and experienced with tracking down corporate executives and agencies that regulate commerce.

Consumers have more resources than you would think—and certainly more than outfits like Qwest think you will find out about. Qwest is the worst I’ve ever dealt with: combatting serious problems that might damage your credit rating or cost you big bucks requires you to roll out the big guns—state and federal regulatory agencies, attorneys general, and possibly even a paid lawyer of your own. But for smaller fry, there are easier ways.

Consumer protection resources fall into two groups: those you can and should take advantage of before you do business with a retailer, contractor, or service provider, and those to whom you have recourse after you’ve had a negative experience. Here are a few worth knowing about:

Before the Fact

The Better Business Bureau.I’ve never found a complaint to the BBB effective after the fact, but it’s a place to check before you do business with a chosen company or contractor. Though the group doesn’t seem to do much about complaints, it does at least keep a record and will let you know the company’s history.

Your state’s registrar of contractors. This is a very powerful resource. States regulate a wide variety of contractors, and in doing so they gather consumer complaints. Before hiring a contractor, get his or her contractor’s license number, call the state agency, and find out what complaints have occurred and how they were resolved. Some states turn filing a complaint into a major hassle; that means that if the agency shows a complaint record, the incidents in questionprobablywere serious.

The Consumerist. Simply enter the name of the product or the company you’re considering into this site’s “search” box and all sorts of enlightening reports will come up. This is where I learned that Qwest had pulled the “let us give you a cheaper package” scam on other customers. This site is so useful it’s worth bookmarking and revisiting regularly. This site also lists the names and addresses of many high-ranking corporate executives. Thanks to The Consumerist, I finally tracked down Mr. Ed Mueller, Qwest’s well-hidden chairman and CEO.

The RipOff Report. Unlike the Consumerist, which carries a fair number of positive reviews, the Ripoff Report consists mostly of angry complaints. Some of these must be taken with a grain of salt. It’s useful, however, simply to compare the volume of complaints registered for two similar companies. Also, if the same issue appears over and over again, that should tell you something.

Consumer Reports. This site supplements the print magazine, and unfortunately you have to subscribe to get much value from it. But it does have a few free features. By and large, Consumer Reports reviews are more useful when they address things mechanical or electronic rather than in matters of taste.

Google. Enter [“name of product or service”] and “consumer reviews” with each word string inside quotation marks. This will usually bring up several sites, some more useful than others, where people hold forth about their experiences with services and stuff.

After the Fact

Get Human. This excellent resource lists strategies to reach live human beings at companies and organizations whose representatives barricade themselves behind telephone punch-a-button labyrinths. Bookmark it!

Corporate headquarters: This link offers some leads. Also you canGoogle the company name + headquarters, or try The Consumerist. Don’t be shy about going straight to the head of the company.

State attorneys general. Few companies relish an inquiry from the biggest, meanest lawyer in the state. If you can’t get satisfaction and you have evidence that fraud or a rip-off has occurred (or is about to occur), a complaint to your state AG’s office can be an effective way to get the attention of someone at the company who will do something about your problem. If a company’s home office is located in a state different from yours, you need to complain to the AG in that state.

Your state public utility commission. These agencies also are surprisingly powerful. They have a lot to say about what a utility can charge and how it can treat its customers. I sent a copy of my letter to Qwest CEO Ed Mueller along to the Arizona Corporation Commission, with the commission’s PDF form showing which specific regulated issues apply.

County and state trade and professional groups, state and county medical societies, and state and county bar associations. Some of these organizations actually license members; others simply try to ride herd on businesses to keep up the communal image. When a sleazy used-car dealer kept telephoning me looking for some mysterious woman who had welched on her car payments after giving the outfit my phone number, I discovered a statewide trade group of used car dealers. After I contacted them, the guy gave up pestering me.

The U.S. attorney general. If you have been the victim of an interstate fraud or other crime, this is the agency for you.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau. The Bush Administration has effectively defanged formerly powerful federal regulatory agencies, among them the FCC, leaving American citizens with far fewer resources to defend themselves against predatory corporate interests. However, the FCC still does provide a fair amount of consumer information and accepts complaints or reports on a few interstate matters.

The Federal Trade Commission. This agency retains substantial clout. It oversees consumer protection in seven major areas. If my current approach to Qwest through the state corporation commission and the company’s upper management fails, the FTC will be hearing from me.

Other federal regulatory agencies. Thelen’s Construction Weblinks includes a list of federal agencies. If you don’t see what you want here, this wiki provides a few extra leads.

When you’re certain you’re in the right, don’t give up. Pursue all avenues to get recourse. Often when a company sees that you’re serious and that you will not be brushed off easily, it will capitulate or at least offer an acceptable compromise. Keep up the good fight!